We’ve all seen a modified Land Rover proudly sporting a ‘One Life, Live It’ sticker across the rear window. While the 4×4 says “I could tackle the Sahara”, the expression on the driver’s face probably says “I’ve got the school run to do”.
For many Land Rover enthusiasts, life dictates that the closest they get to living out their expedition fantasies is a weekend of green-laning in Wales. But even that’s getting trickier, as many byways are having legal rights to drive along them removed following pressure from locals, environmentalists and other byway users.
There are many off-road centres in the UK where enthusiasts can pay a fixed fee to explore the limits of their vehicle and improve their driving skills. But there’s only so much fun to be had driving around a disused quarry before it gets tiresome.
Land Rover has been testing its vehicles within the grounds of Eastnor Castle, in rural Herefordshire, since the early 1960s. Around 5,000 acres and 40 miles of hidden, woodland tracks allow the iconic, British four-wheel-drive manufacturer to test its latest vehicles, untroubled by angry farmers or spy photographers.
And while it’s a private site, with no public access for keen off-roaders in their own 4×4 vehicles, you can purchase a Land Rover Experience session, allowing you access to Eastnor’s varied trails in a choice of vehicles. While these sessions are extremely popular with a variety of customers – from potential Discovery Sport buyers to out-and-out Land Rover obsessives – they don’t quite mimic crossing the Amazon. Until now.
The Eastnor Explorer is a three-day adventure, created to appease the appetite of the most expedition-hungry Land Rover enthusiast. For £325 per driver, per day, it can be taken in one go, using local campsites or B&Bs to make a long weekend out of it. Alternatively, spread the full experience out across three day-long sessions.
We joined a team of wannabe adventurers for a taster of what the new Explorer experience offers. Will it really cut it compared to a real expedition? Going by the expressions on the faces of the instructors as I arrive, I suspect so. These guys spend their working day playing around with the latest Landys in mud, so it takes something special to get them as excited as they are.
Following a briefing (where we’re handed an adventure pack, containing tools such as a fire stick and compass), we’re led out to our vehicles. Curiously, two Defenders and a Discovery support car await us. This isn’t Land Rover attempting to show off the capability of its latest products – it’s a case of using the best vehicle for the job. And the best vehicle for what we’ve got ahead of us is no longer in production.
As we jump in the Defenders and head off for Eastnor’s private tracks, I question the use of a car that went out of production at the beginning of 2016. “A Discovery or Range Rover would get around the course,” my instructor, Mike Chambers, explains. “But it gets very tight, and there’s too high a risk of body damage.”
Ah, so we could do it in a Discovery. But there’s a high likelihood we might prang it.
“If you’ve got the space, a Discovery 5 is more capable off-road than the Defender,” adds Mike.
So, onto the first challenge of the day. A series of planks have been laid out, a Defender’s width apart, and we have to drive along them. But it’s not as easy it sounds. They’re barely any wider than the Defender’s 285mm tyres, so I’m reliant on my team-mates to spot me across – and prevent the 4×4 falling, oh, a good foot or so off the planks.
It’s designed to mimic a self-made log bridge, but without the danger of damage (or injury) if it goes wrong. While we scoffed at first, I soon realised why they didn’t let us drive over a real log bridge from the off. We’re rubbish. The Defender’s wheels made contact with the ground multiple times. Fortunately we’re not being judged. Yet.
Eventually we’ll be making our own bridge, so next comes a lesson in knot-tying. As someone who was a proud boy Scout, I’m slightly embarrassed to say my rope skills are even worse than my precision driving in a Defender. Fortunately, co-drivers Ollie and Martin are much better than me. I’ll remember that for later.
Back into the vehicles, we head onwards along Eastnor’s tricky tracks, which get noticeably more challenging as the day goes on. They haven’t been designed to flatter the Defender, and certainly not the driver: they’re thick, gloopy mud, and on occasions we need several goes to get through a section. “As slow as possible, as fast as necessary” is the old green-lane maxim, but at times we’re having to pile on the revs in low-range first or second gear to get through tricky sections. Sometimes, during an expedition, you have little choice but to be mechanically unsympathetic.
All too used to leisurely lunches provided by manufacturers on car launches, I raise an eyebrow when passed a tub of petroleum jelly and a cotton eye-pad when 12 o’clock arrives. We’re making lunch ourselves… well, a hot drink and toasted marshmallows. Using a volcano kettle, sheltered under a tarp in the woods, the Vaseline and eye pads are an excellent way of starting a fire, as it turns out.
Pre-packed sandwiches scoffed, it’s back into the Defenders. They’re covered in mud now, but there’s more to come. Our next quest is to find the Camel Bridge, but first we have to pass through a thick quagmire of mud that swallows the Defender in front of us up to its axles. Fortunately, we’re behind – a lesson in why pro off roaders usually travel in multiple vehicles – and give the other team a tug out.
The Camel Bridge was originally built during training for the Camel Trophy, a challenging competition that took place around the world between 1981 and 1998. It spawned the now-commonplace ‘One Life, Live It’ motto that’s often found on modified Defenders.
We end the day off with a small crossing across a river. There are logs already laid out – all we have to do is tie them up and drive across them. While the aforementioned Camel Bridge is now a fairly solid structure, in its early days it was little more than two telegraph poles across a gully, much like what we’re faced with today.
It’s not a huge drop into the river, but it’s certainly enough to put a Defender on its side if the ropes aren’t tied properly. Fortunately, my team mates can remember the morning’s rope exercise better than I can. I grab a stick and look helpful by hitting the knots hard to add pressure. I’m sure it’ll help.
It’s telling that those who tied the ropes weren’t as eager to drive across the bridge, but I trusted their skills so jumped in the Defender and agreed to be spotted across. It’s amazing how intimidating a crossing a few metres high above a small stream can be when you’re relying on knots tied by motoring journalists.
It’s been a rewarding day, and there are smiles and pats on the back all-round. Defenders have been stuck up to their axles in gloop, we’ve got ourselves muddy and new skills have been learned. Is it a replacement for a real-life expedition? Probably not, but for a fun weekend away from the city, it’s as close as you’re going to get.
Anyone’s welcome to take the course, and the instructors are experts in tailoring their tuition to your skills (or lack of them, in my case), but it’s probably best suited to those who already have a little off-road experience – and are perhaps considering a ‘real’ expedition in the future.
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